The A’s turned some heads over the winter when they bucked conventional wisdom on how a team on a budget should build a bullpen with the acquisition of Jim Johnson, a “proven closer.”
Johnson was supposed to come in and replace the popular Grant Balfour and anchor what might be the best bullpen in baseball. So far, things have not gone according to plan.
In five appearances, Johnson has blown two saves and coughed up a a pair of runs in a tied game. His three meltdowns this season already equal his total from 2012, and they’ve been excruciatingly painful — the walks and hits slowly build, with a sliver of hope remaining until it finally crashes down.
Closers’ mistakes are burned into one’s memory more than anyone else’s. By the time the ninth inning rolls around with a lead, it’s hard to keep from mentally putting a notch in the win column before the game technically ends.
This hiccup shouldn’t change how the A’s feel about Johnson. His arsenal still features a strong ground ball rate, backed up by decent strikeout stuff while allowing few free passes. Over the last two seasons Johnson has been one of the best relievers in baseball. He has the highest average leverage when he enters a game — thanks to all the close games the Orioles played in the AL East — and handled those situations with relatively few problems. Johnson led the majors with 86 shutdowns over that period, with just 15 meltdowns.
Even taking that into account, he might still be the third or fourth best guy in his own bullpen. It might sound backward that he isn’t the best relief pitcher on the team, but that’s in Oakland’s best interest. Even average pitchers can convert saves at a healthy rate with a clean start (no outs, nobody on), and I have not seen anything to suggest that Johnson is so diminished that he can’t clear this bar.
Johnson holding down the ninth inning allows Bob Melvin to use his better relievers like Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook, and Sean Doolittle in the seventh and eighth innings, with more freedom to get them into higher-leverage situations while maintaining the ability to mix and match to get platoon advantages at the same time. Unless the A’s are willing to go with a closer-by-committee, a change might actually hurt Oakland’s chances to win games.
With so much talent behind Johnson, it doesn’t take much to start looking down the bullpen depth chart wondering if the A’s should have a different guy take over the closer role. The blown games have been frustrating. However, considering his track record, Johnson probably deserves a bit more rope before wholesale changes are needed.